Laptops News

Living with the Lenovo ThinkPad X13s

One of the more interesting—and more curious—laptops I’ve tried in a while is the Lenovo ThinkPad X13s, one of the few ARM-based Windows systems on the market. The machine is designed to provide the laptop features we expect with the advantages we expect from phones, such as better battery life and instant on. It does have some nice features, and is a definite improvement from last year’s ThinkPad Flex 5G, but I’m still not convinced that Windows on ARM is ready.

The machine looks like an ultraportable ThinkPad, with a 13.3-inch display, black matte color, magnesium cover, and the familiar red pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard. Measuring 0.53 by 11.8 by 8.13 inches (HWD) and weighing just 2.5 pounds (3.16 pounds with the included 65-watt charger), it’s light and easy to carry.

It doesn’t offer much in the way of ports, however: the left side of the machine has two USB-C ports, but without support for Thunderbolt; and the right side has a SIM socket, a lock, and a headphone/mic jack. No USB-A, no HDMI. There’s a 5MP webcam enclosed in a lip that protrudes from the top of the screen, with a key that physically covers the webcam, though no user-accessible shutter.

Like most of the current ThinkPad series, it has a decent-size touchpad with physical left and right buttons. It has a reasonable keyboard, but it seems a bit shallower than that on other recent ThinkPads I’ve tested.

The X13s has a fingerprint reader embedded in the power button, on the upper right-hand part of the keyboard, though this was problematic. On the other hand, Windows Hello worked quite well with facial recognition.

What makes this unit stand out is the processor, the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3. This is an 8-core processor running at a nominal speed of 3GHz, with Qualcomm’s Kryo CPU cores and Adreno 690 graphics, manufactured on a 5nm process, rumored to be made by Samsung. My test model had 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD, along with a 13-inch 1920-by-1200 display with the currently popular 16:10 ratio.

Compared with the earlier Snapdragon 8cx in the Flex 5G, this year’s processor is said to be much faster, and now supports 64-bit x86 (Intel or AMD) applications through emulation as well as 32-bit x86 and native ARM applications. It supports Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.1 and includes a Microsoft Pluton TPM architecture for added security.

The good news is that you can run most Windows applications. There are now ARM-based versions of the Microsoft Office suite, so Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Teams, and Edge all work. It does fine with Chrome, Firefox, and Zoom.

It’s notably slower on most benchmarks than I would have expected. Qualcomm has been positioning the Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 as competitive with Intel’s Core i5 processor, but I didn’t get performance scores that were anywhere near that (even given that most of the machines I’ve tested lately were Core i7’s so I didn’t expect the scores to be quite as high.) On the Applications test in PC Mark 10, it scores 7862 vs. scores of about 11,000 or higher on Core i7 or Ryzen 7 lightweight x86 notebooks; and it scored less than half as well on Cinebench. Still, in daily use with light-duty tasks, I didn’t notice a lot of difference from running an AMD- or Intel-based laptop.

On more performance-oriented tests, the Snapdragon just didn’t compete. It took the ThinkPad X13s 89 minutes to run a big spreadsheet in Excel (a native ARM application), compared with 41 minutes for the current (Intel-based) X1 Carbon Gen 10. On the X13s, converting a large video using Handbrake took 3 hours and 38 minutes with the native version of the app; and 4 hours and 5 minutes in an emulated 64-bit version, compared with 1 hour and 55 minutes on the X1 Carbon. And a big Matlab model just simply would not run. Bottom line: this isn’t the right machine for you if you run heavy-duty applications.

It’s also a problem if you want Thunderbolt connectivity. I knew the chipset didn’t support Thunderbolt, but I expected such devices to work via USB-C, albeit at lower speeds. That didn’t seem to be the case. It wouldn’t recognize an OWC Aura Thunderbolt drive at all, and while it recognized Lenovo’s Thunderbolt dock, it wouldn’t pass through video signals.

The model I had included a Snapdragon X55 sub-6 5G modem, and the unit came with an AT&T cellular account. I saw download speeds ranging from 50 to 80Mbps and upload speeds ranging from 7 to 21Mbps in New York; in Connecticut, I saw download speeds as low as 17 Mbps and as fast as 131 Mbps. These are fine for most purposes, but hardly exceptional. Cellular connectivity is a relatively rare option on laptops, but there are a variety of other models that do offer it, and I’ve seen similar or better speeds on x86-based machines.

For video conferencing the 5-megapixel webcam over the display was very sharp—better than on most of the ThinkPads I’ve tested lately, but it displayed a yellowish tint and tended to blow out direct lighting behind the screen. Speakers on either side of the keyboard were again fine, but nothing special.

The X13s has a list price of $2,169 with the unit I tested going for $2,309, which seems pretty high; however, as I write this, it’s available on Lenovo’s website for $1,385. Better, but it still seems high for what you’re getting.

What makes the X13s stand out is the ARM processor, which by itself offers somewhat faster resume from sleep and somewhat better battery life, but with the tradeoff of notably worse performance for heavy-duty applications. It’s a tradeoff that only works if you really, really care about getting the best possible battery life.

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How fast is the Dell XPS 17?

The XPS series is Dell’s most premium, drool-worthy line, making some of the best laptops on the market, and the XPS 17 is the model with the most room for juicy high-end parts. So how much performance can you get out of a super-thin laptop if you throw in the latest Intel Core i7 processor and Nvidia RTX graphics card?

Our review unit of the XPS 17 (9720 model) comes with a 12th-gen Core i7 12700H processor and an RTX 3060 GPU running at 65 watts, all crammed into a beautiful .77-inch chassis. While it’s no “gaming laptop,” instead focusing on productivity and media creation with its gorgeous 4K display, it’s certainly got the chops to run some of the latest high-end titles. But since this is a media creation machine, Gordon focused on more practical tests.

And practical is certainly an apt description of the XPS 17. In tests including Cinebench, PugetBench Photoshop, and PugetBench Premiere Pro, the XPS 17 holds its own against laptops equipped with the same CPU and GPU, sometimes even besting bigger machines with faster graphics cards. Chalk that up to the XPS 17’s more advanced active cooling system, perhaps. With faster DDR5 RAM, the XPS 17 can even beat chunkier designs like the Gigabyte Aero 16 with an RTX 3070 Ti for some intense Adobe applications.

As Gordon explains, the XPS 17 really isn’t designed to be a gaming machine, especially if you’re looking to play in 4K. In 3Dmark Timespy its GPU-focused scores are near the bottom of the pack for similar high-end machines. Even so, it’s an amazing laptop for creating with programs like Photoshop and Premiere, well worth considering if you don’t want to lug around a heavy “gaming” model.